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Blowing smoke over the Texas blackouts

Yes, coal plants can work in wintertime, too.

Last week, while the failures of several coal plants led to rolling blackouts across Texas, I asked aloud whether we’d hear questions about coal’s reliability similar to the ones that cropped up about wind power when a handful of turbines froze up in Minnesota.

The answer: Of course not. But not only was the narrative of the infallible, never-failing coal plant not called into question, a number of folks decided to play it safe and blame wind power anyway.

The lights hadn’t been off for long when meteorologist and climate skeptic Mike Smith wrote the following on his blog:

The (Dallas Morning News) article didn’t give a clue as to what generating capability failed, but I can make a pretty good guess: Wind energy.

I can make a pretty good guess, too! Clearly, the electricity gods are angry, and we must appease them by throwing the Black Eyed Peas into an active volcano!

When several readers pointed out that the actual cause was coal plants going offline, Smith changed his tack a bit:

If conventional power plants had been built instead of wind turbines there would likely be plenty of power tonight.

Remember, at this point, there was essentially zero information as to how wind power fit into the equation. That, of course, didn’t stop widely-read climate skeptic Anthony Watts from running with it on his blog. Texas radio station KFYO also perpetuated the story, posting on their website that “because of the ice storm and lack of wind, windmills weren’t producing any energy” (which, we’ll see in a bit, simply wasn’t true).

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation was taking a different angle entirely. They opined that the outages were caused by President Obama’s “anti-energy agenda,” specifically noting the EPA’s fight with Texas over greenhouse gas permitting.

That narrative was given a wide audience by the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh, prompting a response from the White House and a subsequent story from Politico about the whole affair.

In the light of day, of course, we learn that all this spinning is complete and utter nonsense. Thanks to some actual news reporting by the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Tribune, we know the following:

  • The blackouts were caused by the failure of several coal plants that, apparently, were not adequately winterized.
  • Texas does not have a shortage of generating capacity. The subsequent failure to bring additional electricity online had much more to do with the state’s deregulated, market-based power system (cough cough California cough cough).
  • While wind power dropped off, the state’s wind turbines were quite functional and still provided more than 3,000 megawatts of power during the blackouts.
  • That still raises legitimate issues about wind power – some critics point out that light winds meant the turbines were producing well below capacity at a time when the power was needed most. But to expect an incomplete, emerging energy system to immediately do the job of a long-established one strikes me as perhaps a bit unreasonable.

    And let’s be clear – this is by no means the first time in history that political activists have jumped the gun in making political hay over something before all the facts were in. A couple of months ago, for instance, I called out climate advocates for blaming December tornadoes in Missouri on global warming when, in fact, tornadoes hit the southeast U.S. almost every winter.

    There’s plenty of argument to be made over the best way to more forward with energy. Reasonable people will always draw different conclusions from the same set of facts.

    Unfortunately, it’s the B.S. that always seems to flow faster. Even in February.

    UPDATE: Please read David Roberts’ post, “How a lie enters the political bloodstream,” for more on the phenomenon.

    Photo by Bruce Guenter via Creative Commons

    Comments (2)

    Installed wind generation capacity in Texas is 9,727 megawatts. You boast that “the state’s wind turbines were quite functional and still provided more than 3,000 megawatts of power during the blackouts.” Less than one third of the wind capacity was available.

    If the state’s fossil fueled powerplants had such a miserable availability, there would not have been rolling blackouts…. The entire state would have been dark.

    You describe the wind turbines as “an incomplete, emerging energy system”. Obviously what we need is even more government mandates and subsidies to build even more wind turbines so they can be unavailable when needed.

    By Al on Aug 26, 2011

    Al, with all due respect, I think you’ve missed the point of the post. Intermittency, which, in a diversified electrical system, can be accommodated for (Germany is already years ahead of us on this). That’s not the same thing as reliability, which is an issue for all generation sources.
    For instance, when coal plants in Texas shut down again because they don’t have enough water, where will the energy come from?

    By Ken Paulman on Aug 26, 2011